Thursday, October 1, 2009

Adventures in MeRFland

This is the first in a series of dispatches hoping to chronicle my year of service working at the Boulder County Recycling Center. In the spirit of reflection that my friend Masala Justice cultivated in his year abroad in Indicorps, I hope to illuminate and illustrate my experiences as a volunteer. Perhaps a blog is in the future works. Without further ado...

Many of you know (but some souls remain isolated or obsolete) of my recent move to Boulder, CO to volunteer, via Mennonite Voluntary Service, at Eco-Cycle, a group founded in the 70s to begin the then-new and uphill task of recycling their county’s waste stream. Created at a grassroots level, Eco-Cycle made Boulder one of the first twenty communities in the United States to offer curbside recycling, doing so by collecting recyclables with old school buses and sorting by hand at a small, upraised trailer. This trailer, still on location at the Center for HArd-to-Recycle Materials (CHaRM), is now defunct, but given the reverence of a well-preserved historical site. Unfortunately, tours of that site will be unavailable a hundred years from now due to the planned move and construction of CHaRM and Eco-Cycle’s main offices about a year from now. The new site will actually be closer to where I spend most of my time, which is the Material Recovery Facility (MRF, pronounced “Merf” for all you jargon-heads out there). Another term for the MRF, which is used more frequently in public, is the Boulder County Recycling Center…

Never did I ever think I would be working at a recycling center. Even when I toured the Montgomery County Recycling Center in fourth grade did the thought ever pass my mind that I wanted to work at one of these facilities. I’m not sure what goes through the heads of all the kids who come through the BCRC on field trips, maybe: “What is that awful smell that smells like skunk diarrhea?” or “I’d very much like to ride one of those belts and see where it takes me.” Or maybe those are just my thoughts from working the lines that I’m projecting onto innocent children who have yet to know a hard day’s work. Regardless, I am sure that working at a recycling facility is not in the future ambitions of most of these children, alongside the goals of say being president or being an astronaut. Well, maybe that one kid who likes playing Rambo and feeding mice to his pet snake.

The reality of the situation is that most of the workers at the MRF don’t have such a choice in their employment. As Immanuel Sila, an MVS coordinator put it at orientation, "you can leave, they usually can't." Many are temporary contract workers, about half are Spanish-speakers, some have substance abuse problems or past convictions. They get paid $9-12 an hour to sift through people’s waste; some hired workers get more. These are the grunts on the front lines of the fight to recover 90% of our waste stream, the definition of “zero waste.” These are the real environmental warriors, or at least, the ones doing some of the hardest work. With their unkempt beards, long-sleeved flannel and dusty boots, some look like they just hopped off the train from Yuma. When the buzzer sounds for breaks, which are roughly every two hours, the line of wearied men leaving the facility could be re-imagined as workers leaving a mine shaft. A black-and-white Robert Frank photograph tinged with October Sky, perhaps.

For my first few days, in the interest of learning my way around, I was assigned to work the sorting lines alongside this gnarly crowd. Apart from the monotony of the task at hand: seperating plastic, cardboard, and containers (and everything in between) from an endless stream moving at around 5-10 mph causing temporary movement sickness if you look away for a moment, a buzz in itself, the job wasn't that bad. Some people prefer work that puts them in a routine trance-like state with no critical thinking involved. I must admit that the dissatisfaction of missing a potential contaminant that you spotted up the line, such as a Gatorade bottle or aluminum can, is similar to the feeling when you miss a shot in basketball. If you get bored, you can hum songs or recite rap verses to yourself, or maybe that's just me. If a strange object shows up (I've seen a rubber chicken, Tickle-me-Elmo, super-soakers, and various balls) the workers will make a joke out of it, usually targeting a comrade of theirs. All types of objects get flung around from level to level adding to the many other dangers of working at a MRF. The nicer clothing I wore to make a good first impression had to be adjusted. Never have I worn blue jeans this frequently; this stems from a preference for khaki and a lack of childhood enthusiasm for uncomfortable denim material ever since I shat my pants in first grade.

Whether through my superhuman sorting abilities or the fact that I'm not getting paid to volunteer, I was promoted to work in the head office (alas, behind a computer again) with the accounting ladies, who all seemingly have names that start with D, strangely. Unfortunately, there is not a permanent work station so I have been playing musical chairs and am now back in the production office of the MRF under the direction of a bilingual New Yorker named Lou (who reminds me of my friend Aaron in fifteen years mixed with a stouter Stephen Colbert). The occasional accent that arises mixed with the industry knowledge this man possesses from years of experience bring to mind the waste contract turf wars between New York and New Jersey prevalent in the Sopranos. For the most part, I mainly work under the operations manager, a gaunt, knowledgeable man somewhere in his sixties named Jerry, who has already engaged me in inter-office politics, and the other day, while discussing a results-oriented outreach campaign, told me to "make it rain."

Naturally, I am always uncomfortable when theres segregation of classes at work. The only answer I can provide to the sorters who see me through a window working at a computer is that I'm not getting paid. At any rate, the nature of our operations here don't allow for the accounting office to be mixed with the processing facility, and the buildings were constructed apart from each other. This seperation is bothering for a crusader like me, and in my initial dialogue with Jerry, I expressed several measures I thought would improve the plight of the workers. These included ergonomics training, English tutoring and recreation equipment in the break room, but it seems these initiatives were not included in my job description. I almost had the nerve to suggest longer or more frequent break periods, but realized that the mandates of our production curve wouldn't allow it without sacrificing our sustainability as a public enterprise.

Needless to say, I am learning a lot about the recycling industry and receiving a sometimes overwhelming amount of on-the-job training. Basically, we ship bales of different materials via rail and truck to manufacturing plants that pay us on the quality of the bales, and which then supports our operating costs. The higher-ups listen to my comments and questions with patience, and give calm, detailed responses that touch on overarching goals for Eco-Cycle and society in general. As far as the suggestions listed above, the ergonomics and stretching instruction is already being done through the company's health insurance plan. English tutoring is something that's been considered in the past, but there doesn't seem to be much interest among the Spanish population. The foosball and ping pong tables in the break room are just completely out of the question...

Much has been said about the rise of the green economy, and maybe in twenty or thirty years when history notes this period as the start of that, I'll be able to look back and say I was a part of it. The importance of recycling has been successfully engrained throughout most of our culture, but work still remains to be done on reclaiming even more items from our waste stream so that they don't end up at a landfill and become our children's children's problem. CHaRM tries to add one hard-to-recycle item a year to its list, which already includes #6 styrofoam, computer electronics, plastic bags, and porcelain. Last year, the MRF converted to single-stream recycling (no seperation of containers with paper), which makes it easier for the residents/consumers albeit more confusing (an education gap exists on what is safe to recycle, which I will hopefully help to close). A large, outdoor compost facility is in the works that will produce no methane, the main evil that landfills and indoor compost piles present. More on all this later.

For now, know that the main evils of waste reduction are consumerism and plastic production. If only circumstances had invoked Walter Brooke (thanks IMDB) to tell a young Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate that recyclables and not plastics were the future... Alas, hundreds of billions of plastic products are made every year, and now because of this, there exists an area twice the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean contaminated with buoyant and non-biodegradable plastic items such as water bottles. Reducing your plastic consumption is not all you can do to help reduce waste. Indeed, there are many things you can do, some of which include: living more simply-buy less and buy locally, (try limiting your leisure spending to $50 a month ;-)), eat healthy-no more microwave dinners, less meat and high fructose corn syrup, f a dollar menu, reuse plastic bags and containers, read up on your local recycling center's acceptable materials, start a compost pile, do good work. In the words of a third grader whose drawing made the September slot of an eco-calendar in our office, "Compost...because a rind is a terrible thing to waste."

Fridays are always the best days, going back to TGIF and pizza for school lunch. This weekend I plan to help out at the CPT National Congress in Denver ( as well as play music with some friends. As the final buzzer sounds and production at the MRF stands still, I am reminded of Fred Flintstone: Yabba dabba doo.

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